Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2017

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SUN INTERVIEW:

Las Vegas immigration activist: ‘We’re going to keep pushing forward’

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Sun file photo

The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada joined other pro-immigration groups on Wednesday, July 12, 2017, to protest a visit to Las Vegas by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Las Vegas resident Erika Castro, a community organizer for PLAN, was among the protesters.

Erika Castro, like hundreds of thousands of other immigrant children nationwide, is facing an uncertain future as President Donald Trump weighs the fate of DACA.

But she’s sure of one thing. Even if Trump rescinds the measure, which has provided protection from deportation for an estimated 750,000 immigrants like Castro, she’s going to continue fighting for comprehensive immigration reform as long as she can.

“At the end of the day, this is my home and this is my family's home, and I truly believe I have every right to be here just like everyone else,” said Castro, a community organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

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Erika Castro, a Dreamer who grew up in Las Vegas, is a community organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Castro, who was born in Mexico City and was brought to the U.S. by her family at age 3, joined the PLAN staff in 2015 after becoming familiar with the organization in high school.

During most of her childhood, Castro wouldn’t have imagined herself taking such a public role.

“I knew I was undocumented from a very young age,” she said. “I was about 7 years old when I saw a raid (on undocumented immigrants) happening, so I grew up with a fear of law enforcement. I pulled myself back and tried to be invisible.”

Today, she’s taken a public role in efforts to protect and advocate for undocumented immigrants, including participating in a protest Wednesday coinciding with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ speech to law enforcement officers in Las Vegas. Sessions’ topics that day included the federal government’s contentious designation of Las Vegas as a sanctuary city — a status that local officials say is unwarranted. Metro Police say that they’re not targeting residents based solely on immigration status but are cooperating with federal officials when arresting individuals for other violations and discovering they are undocumented immigrants.

After the protest, Castro sat down with the Sun to discuss Trump’s stepped-up immigration enforcement and how it’s affected Southern Nevada — not just immigrant communities, but the region at large. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

Have you seen a lot more people coming forward in Las Vegas since the election? And what’s been the nature of that outreach?

Initially, there was a pretty good amount of people who were showing up to our know-your-rights forums and asking questions: What are the processes, what are the potential dangers we are facing? But I think ultimately, the undocumented community is kind of used to being under attack. So even though more people started coming forward, the sentiment was, “We're going to keep pushing forward.”

One of the amazing things has been seeing different organizations that don't necessarily focus on immigration jump in and ask, 'What can we do?' We're just kind of building a bridge between different social issues — coming together with undocumented immigrants and Muslim communities and refugees and environmental justice organizations.

What are some of the organizations that have come together?

We were at a Fair Immigrant Rights Movement conference a couple of months ago, and Planned Parenthood was there, Sierra Club was there, MoveOn.org and SEIU (Service Employees International Union) were there. Those are a few.

There have been reports in other communities about an increase in arrests and deportations, including of immigrants who have non-violent criminal records. Is that happening here?

There have been some reports saying there's an increase from this time in the Obama administration and this time in the Trump administration. That's why it's so important for us to be out in the community and talking to them about what their rights are. We can't have ICE and law enforcement collaborating and working on deporting families, because if they're afraid to come forward and talk (to advocates) about what's going on, it's hard for us to keep track of things. Even though we've heard from the community, a lot of time people tend to withdraw. You have to keep your head low and go about your day without getting into any trouble and not be noticed.

In some communities, there’s also been a significant drop-off in crimes being reported in areas with high concentrations of undocumented immigrants. There are concerns that the decrease isn’t happening because fewer crimes are actually occurring, but rather because immigrants are afraid to come forward to law enforcement. Is that happening here?

There's a report in LA that came out recently, that the domestic violence reporting has actually decreased because people are afraid to turn to the police. And in Nevada, we have the highest rate of murders related to domestic and intimate violence in the nation, and now we're adding this on top of that. In other words, people are already living with that fear of domestic violence, to add this on top of that -- how do we expect them to turn to anyone?

That's why this is not just an immigrant issue. It's not just an undocumented immigrant issue. A lot of these families are mixed status. If the mom is undocumented and she's afraid to come forward and something happens to her, what about her children who are U.S. citizens? What happens if maybe she doesn't report an offender but then that person is violent to someone else? We need to have that relationship between our community members and law enforcement, and when you have people like Attorney General Sessions say, no, the police department needs to act like ICE and investigate anyone who has probable cause of being undocumented, then that puts everybody at risk, not just the undocumented community.

Are you hearing people are not coming forward?

I haven't personally heard anything yet, but I definitely know that from personal experience and in talking to my family and friends, that's always one of the fears. You see a cop and you wonder, “Are they going to ask me questions?” My brother is a U.S. citizen, for instance, but he's dark-skinned and really tall, so he looks like he's Mexican, and he worries. If I'm driving, will I get pulled over? He even asked me, am I supposed to carry my birth certificate with me, my passport? How do you protect yourself? That's another issue: If you're racially profiling people and you're pulling them over based on what you think their ethnicity is or whether they have legal status, what about the people who are citizens?

What are you telling people about protecting themselves?

With people who are undocumented, we're stressing to them that you have the right to remain silent and you have the right to ask for a lawyer if you are detained. If they come to your house, you have the right to not open the door -- ICE cannot legally come into your house unless they have a warrant that's signed by an immigration judge. A lot of the times, when you see a government official, you can tend to panic and not know how to react, so we tell them that even if you are undocumented, you have these rights. You have the right because the Constitution says so.

We also tell them to be honest. Don't lie, just don't say anything and talk to a lawyer who can help you. Because at the end of the day, regardless of what the administration is saying or trying to get law enforcement to do, we still have a Constitution that we need to respect and under that Constitution we all have rights.

Have you seen an increase in people coming forward for help navigating the naturalization process?

There was definitely a big push before the election, because we wanted to make sure people could vote. But I think one of the issues with that here in Vegas, they're so far behind in processing those applications. The applications are taking about a year to go through, which in Reno it's taking three to six months. But here in Vegas, because they're understaffed at the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service) office, the waiting time for that is taking a lot longer.

What prompted you to become an activist?

I started getting frustrated with my situation in high school, because I didn't know how to deal with it. I couldn't talk to my teachers about it, so I felt isolated. My parents were trying to be supportive, but they didn't know what to do. And that's when I found PLAN. I met other Dreamers, and they were open and comfortable and unafraid about talking about their status. And that's when I realized I wasn't completely powerless, I wasn't completely alone. And that's what helped me. it wasn't long after that when President Obama announced DACA, which was kind of a weight off my shoulders but also a responsibility. I felt like I have DACA, but my parents probably deserve it a lot more than I do because they left their home and their country to give me a better future and they're still stuck in limbo.

How did you feel when DACA became jeopardized?

I felt like I’d lost everything. I'd gotten accustomed to not having to look over my shoulder or not having to be afraid of driving from my house to school or to work. But after talking to my parents and telling them how disappointed I was, then having them be so calm -- they said, 'We've done this before; we can continue to figure things out' -- I realized this is going to be a hard four years, but if my family did it for 24 years I can do it for the next four years.

So now there's still that uncertainty. But while I can still have DACA, I'm going to continue to do what I'm doing.

For supporters of immigration reform, what needs to happen now?

It's important for us to be proactive. Sometimes it feels like you're constantly on defense, especially with this administration. But we need to take some of that power back. Like, we're not just going to lie here and take it, we're going to show you that this is our narrative, that these are our families and this is just as much our country as it is yours. So we're going to continue to push for different policies and legislation that represent our values, and not the racism and bigotry that Attorney General Sessions represents.